Top 10 Tips for Rail Travel in the US
America is the land of freedom, romance and opportunity with rail travel in the US offering a travelling experience unlike any other.
Whether you’re a seasoned globetrotter or simply curious to see the country whose long cultural shadow reaches our own quiet shores, North America is an unforgettable place to explore. In this article, we run through ten key tips to keep in mind when travelling by train through America’s legendary landscapes.
1. Choose between a pass or point to point tickets
The type of ticketing you choose will depend on how many places you want to travel to and how long you want to spend in each destination. The USA Rail Pass is a great option if you plan to extensively explore either the East or West Coasts, or want to experience broad swathes of the country in a relatively short period of time. On the other hand, if you plan to travel within just a handful of states, or want to travel over an extended period time, point to point tickets will provide you with greater flexibility.
2. Consider upgrading
If you're on a tight travel budget, then economy - called Coach Class on Amtrak trains - is the most cost effective way to travel. Although the Amtrak Coach seats are clean and relatively comfortable, for long haul journeys over six hours, we recommend upgrading your seat to a private sleeper so that you can travel comfortably and arrive at your next destination feeling well rested.
3. Do some background research into the history, culture, and people of America
The writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once said ‘America is another name for opportunity’. Travelling the USA by train gives you the opportunity to witness the infinite possibilities of this country played out in the diverse, contrasting, and sometimes conflicting lifestyles of the American people.
For the past 240 years, America has stood as a beacon for liberty and the promised land for anyone who sought to be the master of their own destiny.
The American dream plays out in a myriad of ways; from the defiant Mormon community in Salt Lake City, to the vibrant and progressive LGBTQI community of San Francisco, and of course the resilient Native American tribes who preserve and practice their rich cultural traditions on reservations dotted throughout the country.
Travelling by train through America gives you the opportunity to experience its multifaceted people and it’s well worth looking into the rich, unique history which has forged these cultural identities.
4. Prepare for a mixture of different weather conditions
As the third largest country in the world, America’s climate is as variable as its people. Weather conditions vary wildly on each coast, with the West Coast stretching from rainy Seattle to sun drenched Los Angeles, and the East Coast which begins in the steamy everglades of Miami, Florida and ends in the windswept city of Boston.
The best way to pack for these conditions is to layer, with quality lightweight fabrics like wool, cotton and linen. If you’re travelling north in the winter, a lightweight down jacket and thermals are essential.
5. Check to see if there are any festivals and events on at the time you are travelling
Americans love to celebrate, and there are dozens of iconic festivals and events throughout the year that give you a chance to experience the essence of American culture. From the humble Midwest harvest festivals typified by corn mazes, pumpkin slings, fairy floss and apple pie, through to iconic events like the flamboyant New Orleans Mardi Gras, or the perennially hip South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, it’s well worth looking into what celebrations are going on when you’re travelling.
6. Prepare a train travel essentials kit
There is an art to long-haul train travel and it all comes down to knowing how to pack. Collect together an essentials kit of woolly socks to lounge and sleep in, a good book to while away the hours, a pair of quality earplugs and an eye mask to ensure a night of undisturbed rest, and a selection of your favourite snacks in case you get hungry between meals.
7. Keep your eyes open
Some sights in America, like the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, Niagra Falls, and Mt Washington are obvious ‘must sees’, but travelling by train gives you the chance to see the real America.
Regardless of the rail route you choose, you’ll be able to experience some of the country’s great contrasting landscapes; sunset coloured deserts, whispering fields of golden wheat, mountainous fir forests, and windswept coastlines are just some of the iconic sights you might see if you look out the train window.
8. Plan to see a little bit of everything
America is a mixed bag of vibrant metropolises, unique natural wonders and sleepy rural communities. As a traveller, if you want to experience the true essence of this varied country, it’s well worth taking the time to explore each of these distinct landscapes.
Amtrak has more than 30 train routes throughout the United States, which travel to over 500 destinations in 46 states.
Whether you want to visit big cities, small towns or places you can only see by rail, Rail Plus and Amtrak can take you there.
Visit our USA train tickets page to see a list of different trains and iconic routes.
9. Take the time to speak with ordinary Americans
Americans are friendly, unique people who are passionate about their country and culture. Ask an American about their home town, their president, or their ideas on what it means to be a US citizen and you’ll be treated to a fascinating insight into the American psyche.
Everyone in America has an opinion on their country and national identity, so whether you strike up a conversation with a roadhouse waitress in Nebraska, a rancher in Texas, or an artist in New York, you’re guaranteed to get an interesting response.
One of the great things about travelling by train is that you have lots of opportunities to strike up a conversation with fellow travellers. Whether you are relaxing in the lounge or cafe car, or enjoying a meal in the dining car on a long distance Amtrak train, you'll have plenty of chances to mingle with the locals.
10. For a stress-free holiday in the U.S. check out our Independent Rail Packages
With our Amtrak Independent Rail Packages all the planning is done for you - hotel reservations, sightseeing attractions, activities, dining and more, but you can arrange your own schedule on these unescorted adventures.We have 10 different itineraries to choose from, allowing you to experience everything from the lively cities in the East to the beauty of the canyons and majestic mountains in the West.